The Relentless Rise of the Superlative
The Rise of the Superlative
Edward Hanna, Professor of Climate Change at University of Sheffield, observes, in his article for The Conversation, how, in recent news coverage of winter weather in the UK, that a common winter storm was renamed “weather bomb” by the media. This happened to coincide with my own noticing of the use of “Absolutely Amazing” to describe some fairly normal occurrences by people I’m connected to on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. You really can’t get any more absolute nor amazing than absolutely amazing.
The rise of the superlative began a long while ago. You can find superlatives all over the TV comedy show Happy Days, which is set in the 1960s and was made in the 19700s. The use of superlatives in the media predate the rise of digital by decades. You can find superlatives in the adverts for products in the Victorian Age.
But there are less of them. They are used more sparingly and I struggled to find “absolutely amazing” anywhere before the 1980s.
Each year I spend a month at the Edinburgh fringe, the world’s biggest fringe arts festival. There, as thousands of shows compete for a fairly tiny audience, everything pitches into superlative, the whole PR-machine implodes and no one ends up believing anything or anyone for a month or more. You also find the use of what I’ll call a “superlative-appendage”. This is a short phrase I am sure you will recognise: “No, really.”
“It was the best film I have ever seen – no, really.”
“It was fantastic – no really!”
“It was utterly, absolutely amazing – no, really!”
The Communication Dead End
The only problem with ultimate superlatives is that, when we use them, we’ve gone to the limit of communication, plundered the possible, and essentially used up all of our communication credit. Simply put, there’we really nowhere else for us to go. No, really.
If something is utterly this, or absolutely that, there are no words or phrases beyond it. It can’t get any bigger, better, quicker, more satisfying if it has reached absolute.
In a way, “absolute” is a sacred word and we plunder it at our peril.
Equally, if a normal winter storm (perhaps a bit of extreme weather is in there too) is renamed as a “weather bomb”, then a real “weather bomb”, whatever that is, will simply not be believed. We’ll have cried wolf too often. This is what happens when theatre companies and reviewers hit “absolute” at the Edinburgh Fringe. If you keep plundering superlatives to describe “pretty good”, then no one knows what real excellence is any more, nor do they even believe it might exist.
Plundering the Superlative
Advertising has been doing it for years; the clumsiest ad makers plunder the superlative – as a result (along with other forms of truth-distortion), this compulsive exaggeration has simply resulted in the advertising industry having a bad name, being mistrusted and lacking credibility. Exaggeration is a form of lying. Many advert makers have recognised this and aimed at more authentically styled adverts. Largely these are untrusted too as the very same industry sullied its reputation over decades. The flight of many ad agencies from superlatives towards more accurate language has, though, met with partial success. By the time a washing powder became “ultimately bluey-white”, there was no space for anything better to come along and the language used became increasingly ultra-bluey-nirvana-white ridiculous. Equally, when an animated film has become “the most breathtaking spectacle you will ever see”, there was little room for the next movie to excel. Language changed in recognition of this and now we have “game changers” and products that “push the envelope”,. These terms suggest room for further improvement.
Finding the Way Back to Authentic
When there is no where to go in terms of ultimate superlatives, there is always going back – back to basics, back to something more real, more human and authentic. Many users of social media struggle here because they have been groomed in a media age to use a limited vocabulary, recycling the same words, phrases and cliches. They then struggle to find the phrases that might capture their true feelings. We then have the opposite of the superlative – we have mediocrity. Wishing not to use superlatives and exaggeration the social media user grasps for the “Like” button and actually underplays what they’d really like to say. The catch all words for this is “Ok” and, increasingly, “cool”.
When mediocrity gets relabeled as excellent and even pushed to ultimate limits, truth in language tends to arrive at a dead end. It can only then fester, dilute, decline or turn around and head back somewhere more authentic. If those heading back end up back in the land of “reality check” without the language to describe it, they will become speechless. The world of marketing and advertising is aware of that, which is why it offers us readily available generic catch-alls like “neat” and “kewl”.
There was No Weather Bomb
So, there was no weather bomb. Nothing exploded. There was some pretty harsh weather and some impressive, striking and beautiful waves hitting the Orkney Island. For some who might have been flooded out or who lost loved ones, this weather may well have been experienced with the same shock as if a bomb had exploded. It is often this with bad weather. But a bomb? Perhaps not.
The Richness of Language
It’s quite an old fashioned view perhaps to believe that we’ve lost many of the words we used to have available to us in our language. It might be being nostalgic to wish for a time where we had more phrases at our command so that we could express our feelings more truthfully, and to generate our own expressiveness, rather than to become “Like-Dislike” button pushers for social media corporations. As an occasional mentor and life coach it is often essential to iput how they are feeling into very accurate words. We often search for a phrase that is eloquent enough to bring problems, blockages, dreams, ideals, pain and hope into expressed conversation. Then we can work with it. often changing your life, or your organisation involves changing how you think and feel about the way things are and could be. Then the language expresses that. Changing yourself involves changing your thinking, and the way you speak about yourself, others and the world. It’s an internal and external dialogue. “Absolutely amazing” seems to paralyse that process. It leads us to a premature dead end, because, further up the timeline, there are other experiences that will supersede the fake absolute. It is in the richness of language and our authentic use of it that we can vision innovation, a better life.
The Role of Enquiry
Interestingly, a bit of exaggeration can be healthy. Born on the wings of our enthusiasm, we can say a meal is “excellent” or “terrific”. But when we then describe that experience in more detail, using a wider set of words and phrases, we come back to authenticity. And that is one way of helping those who have got stuck at the dead end of ultimate superlative overload. We simply enquire further. Enquiry can be experienced as a bit frustrating at first, a bit of a struggle. But when we ask “So what was absolutely amazing about it?”, that simply question opens up an enquiry that seeks description, looks for evidence. When that happens, the enquiry often results in a healthy retreat from the “lie” of the absolute superlative” and we still end up somewhere really positive, as the “utterly amazing meal” becomes a meal that had some impressive creativity in the way it was presented, had some luscious tastes, made us smile at how good it tasted, and was a unique contrast in flavours. It was a fine meal. It was one of the best we had ever eaten…
One of the best. ONE of…
And then the relentlessness of the superlative has been banished, and there is space to move our thinking again.
Paul Levy is the author of the book, Digital Inferno, out now in paperback and on Kindle.